IN our society the terror of dowry extortion is almost routine, responsible for the daily torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of women. The ‘official figure (not counting those thousands of deaths which are passed off as ‘accidents’ or ‘stove bursts’) is that over 9000 women are killed every year in dowry related crimes. But the social outrage and protest such incidents once provoked are now wanting. Sita’s Curse, a new book by journalist Seema Sirohi, attempts to refocus attention on this inhuman crime that has been "tolerated for two long".
Dowry cases are usually relegated to small, routine columns in the inner pages of newspapers. But about a month back, dowry made the headlines again when the press hailed Nisha Sharma; a girl who broke off her engagement on the eve of marriage and booked a case of dowry harassment against her would be husband and his family. Sirohi’s book, released by actress Nandita Das recently, too got some coverage due to the fact that dowry happens to be news again.
Sita’ Curse clarifies at the outset that it does not intend to be an academic enterprise. It tells the stories of six dowry victims, in an attempt to rescue their "real voices" from the numbing statistics. Sirohi describes the work as "extended journalism" which consciously avoids the "abstraction of a theory".
This introduction traces dowry’s transition from a voluntary gift enjoined by the Brahminical scriptures, to the modern extortionist nightmare that it has become. Dowry is not a product of custom and tradition alone; it is a modern phenomenon boosted by economic liberalization. In the ’70s, waves of public protest movements resulted in the creation of special police cells, stronger dowry laws, and the constitution of the National Women’s Commission for Women. But dowry crimes refused to abate. In the ’90s, globalisation fanned up conspicuous consumerism in the middle-class, while at the same time forcing a rapid shrinkage of the job market. Middle class men sought to gain access to capital assets as well as consumer goods through dowry, giving up the extortionary practice a new lease of life.
Sirohi describes how lawyers complain that too many women are "misusing" the dowry law. Just prior to the release of Sirohi’s book, the Delhi High Court ruled that the dowry law needed change in order to prevent "misuse". Sirohi points out that the system is all sympathy to the patriarchal insecurities, and too ready to accuse women of not being "adjusting" enough. One wishes that Sirohi had chosen to explore this debate about ‘misuse’ further, so that readers could hear women activists’ views on the subject. Activists protesting the Delhi High Court’s judgment point out that what is termed "misuse" of dowry harassment law Section 498(A), is actually "overuse". In other words, women take recourse to 498(A) because it is the only available law that addresses the question of redressal for cruelty within marriage. What we need to do is to create laws which address cruelty and harassment within marriage not related to dowry, rather than render the dowry law toothless.
Sirohi also points out how a committee appointed by the Govt. in 1980 to look into the dowry menace, had made several recommendations. Key recommendations were ignored, for instance, that ‘givers’ of dowry be excluded from punishment since they were victims, and also that inheritance rights for women be made equal to those of men. Recently, many question the unqualified hailing of Nisha Sharma’s step, pointing out that her father had, after all, been willing to give two sets of consumer goods in dowry. She called off the marriage only when the demands and insults became too much. Does she deserve to be a role model? Sirohi’s book might suggest an answer. The stories of the dowry victims reveal the immense pressure on the bride and her family to keep giving, before and after marriage. The bride’s father gives dowry hoping to "buy" security for his daughter, while the bride too often wants dowry because, in the absence of inheritance, she sees it as the only thing she will get from her paternal family. The tremendous courage it takes to say ‘No’ in the face of tremendous societal pressure cannot be underestimated. If more women were to say ‘No’, at whatever stage, more lives could be saved. So whether it be Nisha on the eve of marriage, or Farzana who refused to join her husband after marriage, they deserve to be lauded.
Sirohi’s narrative foregrounds the pain, courage, despair, and struggle of six women across regions, religions and classes. She begins with the landmark ’80s case of Satyarani, mother of lower middle class Delhi girl burnt for dowry, who along with Shahjahan Aapa helps other victims fight back. Another story is of a middle class Delhi victim who was starved and tortured for dowry. This story highlights how sensitive lawyers and police can, if they choose, save lives. In this case it was the husband’s lawyer who went out of the way to inform the police that he suspected foul play. And it was the sensitive senior police officer Suman Nalwa who ensured that the victim was rescued.
The third story shows how even an educated, articulate young woman can, in less than a year, be driven to suicide by dowry harassment. The fourth case is a story of partial success. It is the much-publicized case of an US-based NRI doctor whose family was taken to court for dowry harassment. The woman is a ‘victim’ no longer, but has become a lawyer herself. In this case too, the judiciary and police played a rare exemplary role, though the accused were very influential.
The RSS mouthpiece Organiser carried a story comparing Nisha with Farzana, to show how Hindu girls who defy dowry have a rich life ahead, whereas Muslim girls are doomed to the darkness of purdah. Sirohi’s fifth story of Maria Bai, mother of victim of dowry burning, puts paid to any such communal stereotyping. Maria Bai’s own story, of her courageous shedding of purdah, her insistence on educating herself, her marriage by her own choice, her struggle to educate her daughter to become a doctor, earning enough by selling stamp paper outside the courts – is as fascinating as the story of her struggle to bring her daughter’s killers to book. This Muslim woman’s story of exemplary character, determination and courage unbroken by tragedy, is the most moving one in the book. The last story, again, confirms that dowry is no longer confined to Hindu society – it blights the lives of Christian women’s too.
In the end, Sirohi rightly concludes that dowry needs to be seen as a symptom of the ‘devaluation’ of women in our culture, which is perpetuated even by the Indian brand of capitalism. Companies like Videocon can have four thousand women employees in factories and a number of women engineers but their corporate floor is still out of reach as a "matter of policy", since its chairman says he runs "an orthodox family".
Sirohi also examines the weaknesses of the present generation of the women’s movement. In particular she points out the role of foreign donor agencies, which fund NGOs, in dimming the loud voices of protest. "Foreign donors that fund many large NGOs are queasy about questioning the host government too loudly…" and so NGOs, which have taken away some issues from the autonomous women’s movement, stop short of questioning state policies.
Further, NGOs view women’s problems in isolation. Linkages between the women’s movement and radical, democratic struggles and movements have weakened. Whereas in the ’70s, a variety of radical left movements, anti-war students movements and other democratic struggles of landless labourers had provided a fertile ground for the women’s movement, now, increasingly, young people see a job with an NGO as a career, and lack political perspective.
Speaking of the need for political perspective on one hand, Sirohi on the other hand criticizes Leftist women’s groups refusing to share a platform with the Congress in the name of "ideological purity". But the question arises – how serious has the Congress women’s organisation been in the anti-dowry struggles, or in the women’s movement? Sirohi herself sees dowry’s endemic linkages with liberalisation – a policy ushered in and defended tooth and nail by the Congress. Have Congress women’s groups ever shown a willingness to stand up in protest against these policies?
Finally, Sirohi says, the struggle against dowry must be fought alongside that for egalitarian inheritance laws and employment opportunities. We may add that if women are to have "more options besides marriage in life", we must struggle against the shrinkage of education and employment opportunities for women. So, the struggle against dowry cannot be divorced from the struggle against privatization and liberalisation. Only such a struggle waged on a radical democratic agenda, can enable women to "come out of Manu’s embrace".
-- Kavita Krishnan